GOP State Senators Plan to Take on Evers' Mask Order as Coronavirus Cases Spike
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, (third from left) indicated Friday he would convene the Senate to vote on the mandatory statewide mask ordinance. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Partisan split evident on funding vital needs or an election year tax cut

Like a table of high-end diners feasting in front of an empty food pantry, legislative leaders sat in a room filled with cash-strapped county officials on Wednesday and debated whether to spend more than $400 million in extra state revenue on vital local services or on election year tax cuts. 

Proposed bills to address struggles in rural Wisconsin could receive some of the surplus, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said, but that funding is unlikely to go toward other initiatives Democrats are seeking to fund yet this session. 

“We are not going to spend a huge amount of the surplus,” Vos, R-Rochester, said Wednesday to attendees of the Wisconsin Counties Association’s Legislative Exchange in Madison. “We are not going to dramatically expand government with new revenue.”

Vos was joined by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, Senate Minority Leader Jen Shilling, D-La Crosse, and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, at the WCA’s annual event. In addition to the budget surplus, the often-contentious discussion ranged from problems with the Iowa caucus to ongoing partisan divisions on display in last years state budget debate.

Earlier this month, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that state government is now forecast to take in $818 million more in tax revenue than was projected in the 2019-21 budget. About half of the surplus is deposited in the state’s rainy day fund, leaving more than $400 million to be allocated in what remains of the 2020 legislative session.

A story published Tuesday by UpNorthNews details how county officials across Wisconsin are struggling to pay for state-mandated programs amid tight budgets. 

Fitzgerald said Senate Republicans back returning the surplus to Wisconsin homeowners and businesses in the form of a property tax refund. However, that money could be better used for other purposes, Hintz and Shilling said. Republicans’ refusal to fund numerous portions of Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget, they said, leaves many in Wisconsin in need of important services. 

Hintz proposed spending some of the surplus on health care and mental health funding in schools. While the 2019-21 state budget increased funding for mental health services in Wisconsin schools from $6 million to nearly $13 million, it falls far short of the $61 million Evers said was needed.

Hintz said he hears frequently from constituents seeking more mental health services in schools and elsewhere. Republicans previously backed expanding mental health programs under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and the surplus represents an opportunity to address the issue, he said. 

“We need to pressure (Republicans) to see if they really do back more mental health funding,” he said. 

Whether a potential tax refund could be related to income or property taxes has not been determined Vos said. “People have one goal, to make sure we do not spend more than we can afford,” he said, noting surplus dollars also could be used to pay down state debt. 

The four legislators revisited their sharp divisions of budget priorities and the productivity level of the current session.

Democrats Shilling and Hintz criticized Vos and Fitzgerald for holding a record-low number of floor sessions and passing only 69 bills last year. More bills will be approved this session, scheduled to end in a few weeks, but that figure lags far behind the typical average of about 300. 

“This isn’t just happening,” Hintz said. “It is a deliberate choice… The goal hasn’t been to pass meaningful legislation that benefits the state.”

Vos called Hintz “consistently negative,” and credited the 2019-21 state budget for its spending on education and making progress on bipartisan topics such as suicide prevention, adoption and clean water.

“You would think those would all be things we could rally around, and for the most part we have,” Vos said. 

The four legislators found common ground when it came to additional funding to address struggles in Wisconsin’s rural regions, saying budget surplus money could be used for that purpose.

The state’s rural areas were a focus of Evers’ State of the State address last month, when the governor called a special session of the Legislature to discuss initiatives to invest in farmers, agricultural business and rural communities.

On Wednesday Vos reiterated his statement of the previous day that Assembly Republicans will invest more than the $8.5 million Evers has proposed in a rural aid package. Evers said he is open to Vos’ proposals.    

“I think we can do something more significant (than the $8.5 million) in the Legislature,” Vos said.

The four legislators also agreed they would like to see the presidential primary vote in Wisconsin occur earlier in the process. They discussed that possibility in the wake of Monday’s Iowa caucus at which failed technology slowed vote-counting totals.

Whether that happens remains to be seen, but Wisconsin will play a vital role in determining the next U.S. president, the legislators said. All four believe the Badger State is likely to see many visits by presidential candidates, and the next president must win here to win the White House.

“Wisconsin is ground zero in this election,” Shilling said.